I am a graduate student at Stanford University. This means I spend 85% of my time doing academic research and the other 15% of my time taking graduate level classes and TAing for undergraduate courses. Specifically, I am working with Prof. James R. Swartz on developing and improving vaccines for HIV and influenza. Most people hate shots, and getting a new flu shot every year is a major deterrent to being fully vaccinated. What if there was a way we could get a few shots as children and be protected against the flu for life?
The Swartz Lab is trying to develop a broadly neutralizing influenza vaccine that would do just that. The influenza virus mutates rapidly, as a protective mechanism to avoid our immune system, so there are a number of different strains of influenza that exist. On the outside of the influenza virus, there is a protein that looks quite a bit like a mushroom - it is called hemagglutinin. The top part of the mushroom, or the head, is what faces outward and is most easily seen by the immune system. This head region is also one of the parts of influenza that is the most different between strains. However, if you pull off the head and look at the stem of the mushroom-shaped protein, it is extraordinarily similar between all of the strains.
The stem region is essential to the virus life cycle and used to help influenza fuse with our cells. Also, it is largely hidden from the immune system and doesn't need to mutate to escape it. We saw this as an opportunity to train the immune system to attack a part of influenza that is the same in all strains, and a former postdoc in the Swartz Lab did a lot of engineering to make this stem region stable without the head region. I am continuing to work on developing a scalable process for manufacturing this stabilized stem region and understanding the refolding and trimerization of the protein.
I am also attaching the stabilized stem region to a virus-like particle, a synthetic viral shell that contains no DNA and is unable to replicate, to boost the vaccine and hopefully increase the response from the immune system. We are still a long way from having a vaccine you could get at the doctor's office, but we are optimistic. Additionally, I am working on using the things we learned in developing the influenza vaccine to develop a novel HIV vaccine in collaboration with Prof. Peter S. Kim.